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Several environmental groups have actively campaigned to increase consumer awareness about potentially harmful nail polish ingredients in recent years. In particular, they have pointed a finger at dibutyl phthalate (DBP), the substance that makes fingernail polish dry to a smooth varnish. While DBP is banned in Europe, it can sometimes still be found among nail polish ingredients in the U.S. Given the number of other chemicals used to make nail polish, however, DBP is just one of a list of dangerous toxins sometimes found in this beauty product.
Industrial solvents are commonly included as nail polish ingredients and may pose a threat to the nervous system due to habitual or prolonged inhalation of their fumes. Toluene, for instance, is one ingredient that promotes a feeling of intoxication when inhaled. It has also been linked to neurological disturbances in humans and impaired fetal development in animal studies. Another solvent, methylene chloride, is classified by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health as a potential carcinogen. It also increases the risk of hypoxia in people with cardiovascular disease, a condition that depletes tissues of oxygen.
Many other nail polish ingredients are known to be carcinogenic. Formaldehyde, which is used in hail hardeners but usually not in nail polish, has been shown to produce nasal squamous cell cancers in rats and there is a high incidence of brain cancer in humans exposed to this chemical in occupational settings, such as morticians and pathologists. Benzoyl peroxide, better known as an acne medication, is an industrial chemical added to self-curing plastics. It is also a common nail polish ingredient that has been linked to skin cancer in animals.
Glycol ethers also present certain health hazards. They have been shown to reduce sperm count and increase the rate of miscarriages in both animals and humans at very low exposure concentrations. In fact, toxicity from glycol ethers can occur without the telltale symptoms of nausea or dizziness.
Despite the number of potentially toxic chemicals in nail polish, it does not necessarily mean everyone needs to stop polishing their nails. Many big name manufacturers have removed DBP, formaldehyde, and toluene from their nail polish formulations and several new companies have emerged to produce natural nail polishes. Of course, a careful inspection of the list of ingredients is a good idea before purchasing any nail product. In addition, people who get their nails done in a salon — or do them at home — should make sure that there is proper ventilation.